Experimental evidence that microbial activity lowers the albedo of glaciers

Michaela Musilova, Martyn Tranter, Jonathan L Bamber, Nozomu Takeuchi, Alexandre M B Anesio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)
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Darkening of glacier and ice sheet surfaces is an important positive feedback to increasing global temperatures. Deposition of impurities on glaciers is primarily believed to reduce surface albedo, resulting in greater melt and mass loss. However, no study has yet included the effects of biological activity in albedo reduction models. Here, we provide the first experimental evidence that microbial activity can significantly decrease glacier surface albedo. Indeed, the addition of nutrients at ice meltwater concentrations to microbe-impurity mixtures resulted in extensive microbial organic carbon fixation and accumulation in Greenland Ice Sheet surface debris. Accumulated organic carbon, over the period of a melt season, darkened the glacial debris in our experiments from 31.1 % to 15.6 % surface reflectivity (used as an analogue for albedo in our calculations), generating a strongly absorbing surface. Our experiments are the first to quantify the microbially-induced potential melt increase for the Greenland Ice Sheet (up to an average of 17.3 ± 2.5 Gt yr-1 at present and up to ~85 Gt yr-1 by 2100, based on our first order calculations). Mass loss from glaciers will conceivably intensify through enhanced microbial activity, resulting from longer melt seasons and fertilisation from anthropogenic sources.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-116
Number of pages11
JournalGeochemical Perspectives Letters
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2016


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